Malcolm's Reviews > All That Is Solid Melts into Air : Experience of Modernity

All That Is Solid Melts into Air  by Marshall Berman
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The title comes from one of the more poetic moments in the Communist Manifesto (the full sentence is – 17 paragraphs into part 1: "All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life and his relations with his kind", although the word translated here as solid could also be 'privileged and established' – less poetic) which describes the step beyond delusion to see the truth behind ideology as a moment of intellectual (re)awakening. It also describes the experience of revolution, and arguably what the philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn called a paradigm change. So, for Marx & Engels it was all about revolutionary change and liberation, precisely the meaning Berman imbues it with here. Berman is, however, not discussing the overthrow of capitalism, but the experience of modernity as a cultural, intellectual, spatial, and social era. He does so by considering the politics and ethics of five modernist moments: Goethe's Faust, Marx's politics, Baudelaire’s literary and peripatetic life and writings in post-Haussmann Paris, and the design, construction and literary life of St Petersburg, and design of and residence in New York.

At first these may seem an unusual group of things to use to explore the development and experience of modernity – but in Berman's hands these disparate moments expose the social changes and dizzying transformation of life, morality, philosophy, economics, and politics that brought at least the European and Anglo-worlds into capitalism, with its new ways of life and exploitation, art, literature, ideas of the good life, and cultural practices. It remains one of the marvels of late 20th century writing, and even though it is now nearly 30 years old remains a vital text for understanding many of the world-level changes of the last 300 years.

I knew New York fairly well before I read it, and it resonated, made sense, and explained many of the things that had struck me about the city – and in visiting Paris and St Petersburg after reading the book (in the later case nearly 10 years after reading it) parts of the text kept coming back to me: it sparkles, and invades my walks in the Marais and on Nevsky Prospect. At the centre of it all though, and hence the title, is the sense of uncertainty, of constant change, of instability that is modernity – and it is worth noting here that Berman, at least at the time of writing, was sceptical of the status of postmodernity as a unique or distinctive era, and of the post-modern critique of high modernity as totalising. It sits alongside David Harvey's Condition of Postmodernity as one of the vital texts of our time, and it is shamelessly a piece of Marxist writing – but a piece that shows us the richness and sophistication of Marx the analyst. I don't agree with all of it (of course not) but it is impossible to ignore. And if you don't want the political reason to read it, it is also a brilliant piece of intellectual history.

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